With talk of instruments like the Tenori-On, and looking to the future of tangible interfaces for music, it’s worth exploring past designs, as well. Take Don Buchla’s Music Easel — concocting sounds with this rare 70s instrument was a matter of plugging, touching, and patching. Digital sounds and music sequencers do plenty this can’t, but if it was possible to make the Music Easel’s functions tangible, why not digital instruments, as well? Artist Alex Tyson has been bugging us about this for a few days, and I finally got to watch it. It’s really lovely. (And, yeah, now I really want Alex’s camera, too.)


Alex writes:

This colorful video features sound artist Charles Cohen improvising on a 1970’s Buchla Music Easel. This extremely rare instrument is one of Don Buchla’s 200 series. Buchla (a pioneer of audio synthesis) only manufactured 14 of these units. The entire film was edited from an hour-long set of free improvisation, with audio was taken directly from Charles’ mixing board.

All of the photography and editing was produced by Alex Tyson, a sound and video artist from Pennsylvania. The film was shot in 16:9 720p High Definition format, with only a 35mm LensBaby 3GPL.

Mmmmm… LensBaby. Yeah, this is motional porn as well as musical. (Update – looks like Tom at Music Thing is enjoying as well.)

For more Buchla improv action on a newer generation of hardware, check out Richard Lainhart on his Buchla 200e and Continuum setup, playing at our Handmade Music event hosted with Make Magazine and Etsy Labs. (Side note: if you’re using YouTube for documentation, don’t miss the latest tips for getting better quality — with help from Richard — over on Create Digital Motion. Got some clips myself I’ll be uploading with that information in hand.)

That’s not Richard’s video as he was busy playing; his vids — employing those YouTube tricks — are available on Richard’s YouTube channel.

  • Lovely! Turning off the computer, turning on the synths…

  • awesome

  • The question is why in the intervening 40 years since the Music Easel was designed has so little been done with tangible interfaces for electronic musicians?

  • wishniak

    theres a great interview with Don Buchla at the red bull site:


    he says some really interesting stuff, and puts the interviewer back in his place a couple times!

  • @Steve: actually, I kind of wonder if the problem is taking things like modular synths too literally. So what you get is hardware or software that tries to replicate some of this stuff that doesn't necessarily make sense in a digital context. Moog and Buchla and others, not having this history of instruments to work from, were really thinking more about musical logic and what the working process was like. So maybe what we need is to try to get back some of that freshness and think about what's unique about digital instruments.

    Also, it's tougher working in digital realms with software, because you don't have this physical signal flow. So I think as we get better hardware platforms for sensors, embedded hardware, etc., we'll have some new opportunities for people to try new stuff.

    But that makes the Easel all that more inspirational, of course.

  • dead_red_eyes

    I would freaking kill for a Continuum. I've never see a Buchla Easel before until this video. They look really cool.

  • I think it would be possible to create a digital electronic instrument with the immediate, expressive performance capabilities of the Easel.

    What I'm imagining is a hardware box with an integrated multi-touch interface, something like a super-Lemur. The model for the virtual instrument would be the modular synth, but all the modules and connections would be virtual. The touchscreen interface would adjust itself according to which modules were enabled, and virtual knobs and other controllers would let you directly effect module parameters. The connections would be handled through a virtual patch matrix, something like the VCS3, but also controlled through the touchscreen, just by touching junction points to make or break connections.

    Add to that an appropriate musical control interface (I'm partial to the Continuum, but any expressive controller could work), and patch memory for all parameters, and I think you'd have a viable virtual analog synth that could be played like an instrument. It might even be possible to go further and replace the virtual modules with real analog modules, although at least some of the signal path would still need to be digital. Still, it would be an interesting machine…

  • Don just turned 71 last Friday. Happy birthday.

  • poopoo

    I think one of the reasons modulars are so great to work on is because the parameters and the connections are grouped as a unit. A lot of the computer based systems don't have this. The connections are on one screen and the parameters are on a completely different screen.

    Patch panels on the VCS3 are a cool but they suffer the same problem, the connections and the parameters are not grouped logically.

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